To match the success of Sonos, how do you do that? By betting on a trendy design with trendy fabrics, a nice sound, Chromecast and Google Assistant, according to Harman Kardon’s Citation line. We are looking at three wireless speakers from this new multiroom speaker family: the Harman Kardon Citation 100, 300 and 500.
Introduction Harman Kardon Citation series
With the launch of the Chromecast-compatible Citation family, Harman Kardon has finally launched the multiroom segment awakened again. Those who previously searched for a wireless speaker with multiroom functions, almost guaranteed with a Sonos speaker home. Exceptionally perhaps a Bose or a HEOS. But despite many courageous attempts from brands like HEOS, LG and Samsung, it seemed as if Sonos did not fall off his throne. Will Harman Kardon change this? That may be too ambitious, but the new Harman Kardon Citation line has many qualities that make it a tough challenger for the multiroom superpower.
The Citation line was solemnly presented at IFA 2018 in September, and gradually reached the stores . That it took longer, there is a reason for this: the devices work with Google Assistant. For the Dutch-speaking language area, we waited for a while with the presentation of the Citation products, until the Assistant spoke our language.
At FWD Magazine we made acquaintance with the Citation speakers a little earlier, because Harman Kardon Already in May 2018 under embargo the aircraft presented to the members of EISA. We were also able to start with early samples. That experience convinced me, because the Citation 500 speaker (which we again test here) received an EISA Award for best smart speaker. However, the Citation family is much more than that one wireless speaker. In total Harman Kardon puts eight products in the stores: four wireless speakers (the Citation One, 100, 300 and 500), a subwoofer (Citation Sub), a soundbar (the Citation Bar) and a set of remarkable floor stands of 2,500 euro / couple (Citation Tower). In this article we look at the Citation 100, 300 and 500, with prices from 299 to 649 euros. We will test the Citation Bar at a later date, because the software to work with the optional wireless rear-speakers is not ready yet. The Bar works as it should be as a standalone soundbar, but can not be extended to a real 5.1 set-up for the time being. As soon as possible, you will see a full test here.
Chromecast and Google Assistant
What makes the Harman Kardon Citation speakers special? Several things, but first let’s talk about the Google Assistant integration. In the past, Harman Kardon has developed its own multiroom platform, operated with its own app. However, the Omni platform was unsuccessful, partly because the software development went less smoothly than expected. In the end, Harman (now part of Samsung) decided to switch to Google’s Chromecast platform. This means that the Harman Kardon Citation devices do not have their own app, but are operated from Google Home and from apps with the casting function built-in. There are many: Spotify, Deezer, Tidal, Qobuz, Plex, TuneIn, Google Play, and much more. You hear it, there is little shortage of music service support.
Moreover, every Harman Kardon Citation device has a microphone built in. This allows you to contact the Google Assistant. That is a plus compared to speakers that are Chromecast-compatible, but where you need an extra Google Home mini to operate them via the voice. At the Harman Kardon Citations you can immediately get started and talk to the speaker. Harman Kardon is happy to pick up with the voice control, it is really a highlight of the devices.
Anyone who does not want to use Chromecast, for example in a holiday home without WiFi, can also send music to the speakers via Bluetooth. It is not intended as the main way to stream music to the Harmans, but it is fun in certain situations.
Harman has made a radical choice not only under the bonnet, but that is also the case for design of the Citations. All Harman Kardon Citation products share a very contemporary design, with rounded corners and a finish in a trendy fabric. The design is reminiscent of the wireless speakers from Bang & Olufsen, perhaps also because the chosen fabric comes from the Danish fabric maker Kvadrat. And that company also cooperates with B & O.
Anyway, we find the appearance of the Citation very successful. They fit much better in an interior than most rivals, who often choose more modern, sleek and ‘technical’ designs. The Citation speakers look more natural, partly because the used textile looks costly. Stylish too, with a coarser structure that provides subtle shades of color. At IFA, Harman Kardon showed Citation speakers in many different colors, but for now we only release a light gray and a dark, almost black version. They are not really pitch black or flat gray, lighter and dark threads run through the fabric. When we then look at the Sonos and HEOS speakers in our house, we think spontaneously: “Old-fashioned!”
Set up with Google
As said, there is no Harman Kardon Citation app of its own. You do everything via the Google Home app, including setting up the speaker and updating the software. The setup procedure is fairly simple: the app automatically detects that there is a new speaker in the house, after which you connect the device to your WiFi network with a number of steps and give a name. Goes relatively smoothly, although we still find the Google Home app somewhat tedious. Where you get a Sonos speaker working in a minute, you sit at Google Home longer waiting and disclaimers to fill. We must be honest and admit that this is because you immediately put the voice control in order. If you wish, you can also train the Assistant with your voice. Fortunately, you do not have to repeat that training with each speaker, but you can transfer the results from before to a new device.
During setup, the Google Home app will look at the language of your smartphone to set the language recognition. No problem in the Netherlands, in Belgium you get the message that the language support is missing. No problem, you can simply choose Dutch (the Netherlands) and then it works. If the smartphone on which Google Home runs is in English, then there are options. For example, you can define Routines so that with one voice command (“I am awake”) you can, for example, turn on the light in the bedroom and have an internet radio station play.
At the end of the ride, you point to a speaker to a room. This is especially interesting if you still have smart products in your home, such as Hue lamps. The Home app can thus serve a lot. We have, for example, a SmartThings hub from Samsung, linked to all kinds of devices, including Z-Wave built-in switches and thermostatic radiator valves, which works directly with Home. It is of course handy that all those things in the Home app are visible and operable, but once your home contains many devices, it quickly becomes cumbersome, for example, to change something about your speaker. A dedicated app for your music system is more convenient in that area. And that’s a comment we’ve made at Chromecast soundbars, such as Harmier Kardon’s Enchant 1300
Our impression is that Google does not really see the Home app as the app with which you would operate a music system. You can, because you can adjust the volume per speaker. But you can not select music, you do that in a music app. It is also in the Home app that bundles your Harman Kardon Citation speakers. You do that differently than with Sonos, MusicCast or HEOS. With them there is always an overview of connected devices, which you then drag to each other or in a different way if you want them to play the same song. With Chromecast speakers, you create a group with a certain speaker, for example “Down” with all speakers in the living room, dining room and kitchen. That group will then appear as a separate choice if you press the cast icon in apps, next to the separate speakers. If you have two Chromecast speakers in your home and you create a group with both, you will see three options for the cast icon in a music app: speaker 1, speaker 2 and speaker 1 + 2. The useful thing about this is that you only have to make a group once. In a house with many zones, it quickly gets busy in your cast overview. The group is also recognized by Google Assistant, so that with a command like “Play David Bowie on Down” you control the whole group of speakers. Another plus is that a group of speakers can contain multiple brands, as long as they have the cast function on board. Tip: when giving names to your speakers (and other devices) it is smart to take into account voice commands. A name like ‘Speaker in the back of the dining room’ is very long to say every time. But naming everything ‘kitchen’ is not practical either.
To select music, open a cast-compatible app. These are the most mobile and desktop apps of music services, including Spotify. The only big name without Chromecast support is not by chance Apple Music. For example, in Spotify, simply choose the desired playlist, track or album, and press the cast icon. Then you see the Harman Kardon Citation speakers (but also any other speakers and audio systems) appear. Tapping and a little later the music starts to play. All the music you choose will automatically continue playing on the chosen speaker, until the speaker is switched off.
or so goes the theory, because we notice that some apps on some devices work much less smoothly than others. Spotify, for example, almost always works smoothly and quickly. Tidal, on the other hand, has, like Qobuz, occasionally found it difficult to connect to the speaker. If you cast to a group, not all apps have full support for this. The volume of individual members of the group is not possible and you have to go back to the Home app. There you have to tap a number of times before you come to the separate volume controls. That is quite cumbersome. Also the volume control works less well with some apps.
We honestly do not think this is the fault of the Harman Kardon Citation speakers, because we also note similar problems when testing other Chromecast-compatible products. It seems to us that Google still has to work on the multiroom part of Chromecast, although it usually works flawlessly. It is rather a less good user experience. The things we quote are rather minor irritations and we think there are no reasons to ignore the Citation speakers or other Chromecast products.
On top of the Harman Kardon Citation 300 and 500 (but not the Citation 100) are small touch screens. You can not do that much right now. You will see information about the track being played and by swiping you can adjust the volume. But in the future this screen would also show preset buttons that are linked to favorite internet radios, albums and playlists, we capture them in the corridors.
Vote works fine
What works surprisingly well is the voice control via Google Assistant. Once you have mastered the right wording, at least, that is not a challenge. Compared to Alexa on the Sonos One (in English), music applications via the Google Assistant are much more accurate. The Assistant rarely makes mistakes or does not disappoint you by saying that he does not understand you. Even more difficult questions, such as “Play the latest Adele album”, are understood. There are also many less false activations (during which a conversation between people in the room suddenly sounds from the speaker: “I do not understand you”) than Alexa. That’s how you do it. You can only play music from Google Play or Spotify. A subscription to one of these two is therefore required. That is a pity, given that you can cast music from the apps of other services. However, when casting, you can simply jump the Qobuz app to the next track with a voice command, pause music or adjust the volume.It is also unfortunate that you can not play your own music collection from a NAS. If you ask to play Muse, it comes from Spotify – even if you own all albums of the group and are ready on a DLNA share. Google will of course not wake up to this criticism, because the majority of the general public prefer streaming services.
Those who are afraid of privacy violations do not need the Google Assistant. You can choose that in the Home app. Each Citation speaker also comes with a button to temporarily switch off the microphone. The LEDs that are hidden under the fabric at the front and glow white when you approach the Assistant, will then continuously turn red. So you immediately see if the microphone is listening or not.
The advantage of Google Assistant is that it can serve many things. You can ask a Harman Kardon Citation speaker to send a video on YouTube to a Chromecast stick or Android TV TV, for example. Or dim your lights in the living room. The Citation speakers thus also surpass the audio and multimedia features, and are a gateway to a smarter home. The question which smart home devices you can control with each platform exceeds this article, but it is a question that you have to ask if you currently choose between Sonos and Harman Kardon and you want to control smart devices. Strictly speaking Alexa supports more smart home products, but the lack of Dutch language support is still a major shortcoming. Google also seems to be gaining ground in terms of smart home integration. We have to note that Sonos will soon introduce Google Assistant support, so the choice no longer comes down to Sonos / Alexa versus Harman Kardon / Google Assistant.
Beautiful and mature sound
You may have noticed: the ministry is a big part of the Citation story. But of course it remains speakers that sound especially good. What about that? The Citation 100, 300 and 500 that we view here do not quite follow the small-medium-large approach of most other multiroom brands. The Harman Kardon Citation 100 is not the smallest loudspeaker in the Harman Kardon family, that’s the Citation One. The One and the 100 are compact, small columnar speakers that look very similar. The Citation 100 is a bit higher and more powerful. The different-looking Citation 300 and 500 also share the same design. They are rather table models, such as the Sonos PLAY: 5 or the Yamaha MusicCast 50.
When it comes to sound quality, the Harman Kardon Citation 500 is not unexpectedly the primus of the three tested Citation speakers. He produces a very powerful sound, with relatively deep and detailed bass, and also radiates music wide into the room. You can listen to a beautiful jazz piece like ‘Solea’ by Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain without feeling like you are missing something. If you turn up the volume very far, Davis’s peaking trumpets on the edge are too sharp, but that is not so far from reality. Miles liked to look for those high, bright peaks. The same track on the Citation 100 is a bit less impressive. It does not sound much thinner, but the smaller speaker can not go that deep. It is also remarkably quieter, even if you turn the volume knob all the way. The Citation 300 is not somewhere in between. It is closer to the Citation 500 than you would expect, which is positive. You can also make stereo pairs with the Google Chromecast platform, and we think quietly that a few Citation 300s would be an interesting choice that offers maximum quality for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to test this setup.
Comparisons with Sonos are a bit inevitable. The Harman Kardon Citation 500 and the PLAY: 5 are not far apart in terms of power and quality, we notice when we put the two next to each other. They all belong clearly to the top in this price segment. The Harman Kardon Citation 100 we find again less punishment than the Sonos ONE, especially when it comes to presence in the low and bass. In terms of detail and spatiality, the Harman Kardon is better. The Sonos speaker does have an advantage in terms of audio reproduction. The Sonos devices come with Trueplay, a function that in some rooms can make a big difference in the display quality.
The Citation speakers are successful wireless speakers with multiroom capabilities and a very elegant, modern design. You take them with pleasure inside to place in the living room. The fact that they do not have their own app usually does not matter. Chromecast allows you to use most streaming services. Google Home is not optimal to operate an audio device, but the well-functioning voice control via Google Assistant does a great job. The Harman Kardon Citation 500 is the strongest of the three tested Harman Kardon Citation speakers, thanks to a larger housing and better drivers, but the Harman Kardon Citation 300 is not much weaker. The combination with the other Citation devices makes this new speaker family Harman Kardon a formidable challenger for Sonos.